My experiences last year with New York Film Festival left a bitter taste in my mouth. From the soup-sipping inanity of Police, Adjective to the brutally emotionless genital mutilation of Antichrist, last year’s offerings smacked of a smug pretension matched only by Graduate English class lectures and the occasional MoMA exhibition. It was then with heavy heart that I walked into Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber, the first of my NYFF 2010 screenings. Heisenberg’s thriller, based on Martin Prinz’ novel of the same name, acts as a post-prison biopic for famed criminal Johann Rettenberger, also known as Austria’s very own “Pump-gun Ronnie”. Yet unlike Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption, who provides hope despite pitiful failings, Rettenberger’s story is one of existential tragedy— he’s doomed from the start by his own hand. Though it’s no Shawshank, the film still packs a compelling narrative—instills its criminal’s acts of violence with a sense of purpose, placing blame more on feelings of “placelessness” than madness.
Johann Rettenberger is a reformed criminal; in a past life he was responsible for the robbery of several Austrian banks. While in prison he committed himself to a life of rigorous marathon training, and now that he’s been released, it’s his parole officer’s duty to ensure he focuses his energies on running rather than killing—a duty he takes to a nauseating level of persistence. Rettenberger wastes no time stealing a car and robbing a bank following his release, and after just a few weeks in the free world, finds himself the focus of a city-wide manhunt. With a girlfriend willing to betray him, a murder under his belt, and recurring nightmares of dying in a foxhole, it’s only a matter of time before his life of crime is put to an end.
A large chunk of this film is devoted to scenes of Rettenberger running; across hillsides, through playgrounds, out of prisons—this man runs more than most people drive in a year. It’s strange to admit, but the running scenes are The Robber’s meat and potatoes—brim with energy and a universal notion of escape. Though never headed anywhere specific, the protagonist is constantly in motion, fleeing one nondescript location for another in search of sanctity and self. Like so many people lost on the roadways or jogging paths late at night, he is both somewhere and nowhere—in flight from everything he knows. On first glance you would think Rettenberger runs to escape himself—his life of crimes and personal failings—but after he flees arrest, leading the police on a city-wide manhunt that eventually extends to the neighboring hillsides, it becomes apparent that the titular robber may be more shallow than the film’s first half suggests. Heisenberg has crafted a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be—vacillates between moody existential drama and straight-cut thriller. This doesn’t deter it from entertaining, but does hold it back from any meaningful conclusion; despite all the time we spend with him—his numerous accomplishments and personal sufferings in the name of his past—John Rettenberger is little more than a faceless criminal with a knack for hoofing it. The Robber isn’t Heat or Shawshank or even The Untouchables—and in many ways it’s a pretentious conglomeration of all three—but underneath the film’s smothering atmosphere of seclusion and uncertain focus lies a unique directorial style that can mold a mundane act like running into a statement on the human condition.